Universities and coronavirus

How will universities cope in the current crisis?
28 April 2020

Interview with 

Stephen Toope, University of Cambridge, Lord David Willetts, Resolution Foundation,


Schoolchildren writing on a blackboard


Across the world, universities have been closed, researchers sent home and many classes are either not taking place or they’ve shifted online; so how does that impact the way universities are operating, and what’s been the financial and scientific impact. Chris Smith spoke with Stephen Toope, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, and was then joined by Lord David Willetts, former Minister of State for Universities and Science, and President of the Resolution Foundation for his expert opinion...

Stephen - We have to be frank that a lot of this depends upon the extent and duration of the economic downturn. We certainly estimate the potential for hundreds of millions of pounds of lost income over the course of the next couple of years, but there are upsides and there are downside scenarios and you know at this point it's really hard to tell exactly what number might be right. It does represent the potential for fee income to go down, particularly if there is a smaller cohort of international students. It also represents a loss of income for rental of accommodation for the colleges of Cambridge and other universities would experience a similar loss of income. In our case, we're fortunate enough to have an endowment, so it's also contemplating a reduction in the payout from the endowment.

Chris - At the moment, obviously institutions like Cambridge rely very heavily on an overseas trade in students. Education is a major export success for the UK. How is that going to change?

Stephen - Well, I hope it's too early to say how it's going to change, quite frankly, but there's certainly a likelihood in the short term that there will be a reduction in the number of international students traveling anywhere in the world. This is not just a UK phenomenon. I'm aware, for example, that there's a perception fair or not in other parts of the world that the UK was slow in its response to coronavirus and therefore we've got families saying, "is the UK a safe place to go?" So one of the things that we're going to have to do is make sure that our public communications around how the country is going to deal with the virus going forward is communicated as clearly as possible even outside the borders of the UK. Of course in the longer term, we don't know whether this will play out as a changing dynamic fundamentally, or whether this will turn out to be a more temporary pause in what has been an extraordinary growth in international students all around the world.

Chris - With a place like Cambridge, one of the world's best research centers for science, how on Earth are we going to carry on doing cutting edge research when laboratories are shut, people are having to do science at their kitchen table?

Stephen - We do have to find a way as quickly as possible to get people back into labs and libraries because if we don't, we're going to have a real pause on absolutely fundamental research. I mean think about research related to cancer for example, that is largely not happening in the same way that it was previously. Again, I know people are going online and doing as much as they can and sharing data, but we've got to get people back into the lab and so we've already started looking very, very carefully in a detailed way at how we can open up labs as soon as social distancing rules shift and the lockdown is no longer fully in place. But we're going to have to do it carefully and with absolute precision in thinking about the health and wellbeing of our staff members. We are going to be part of the solution to the re-booting of the UK economy, which is going to have to focus on research and innovation. I think we've learned that in this crisis. And if our teams are already degraded, we're not going to be able to make the contribution we need to make.

The good news here I think is that the government had previously committed to a very dramatic expansion of research funding over the course of the next few years. And in a sense I think all the government has to do is front end load some of that funding to make sure that we hold this infrastructure together so that it can really be up and running and deployed as quickly as possible when we're out of the immediate elements of this crisis.

David - Well, you're right, I mean one of the big elements is that flow of overseas students that's so important for British universities. And the estimate is they bring about 7 billion pounds into our universities, students from China and from around the world. And if they don't travel to the UK, that's a big hit. So yes, there are massive economic risks for universities. That was a fantastic interview from Stephen too, but I, I think the other point is that this crisis is reminding us of how important and valuable universities are. There are medical students being graduated from university early so they can go straight into the hospitals to help out with the crisis. And similarly for nurses. You know, the research that's going to be necessary on vaccines and what you were hearing earlier in the programme from Robert Lechler at Kings College London where I'm a visiting professor. This is reminding people of the value of the university and what they stand for. And universities have had a bit of kicking in the media in the last few years. I hope this is a reminder that they are absolutely crucial for our recovery from this.

Chris - Is there not a danger though that with universities nursing these kinds of revenue hits, that they'll look to make savings and they'll do it by looking at head count, they're going to be looking to take jobs away and this could fragment research teams that take years to assemble and that will actually impact on the research trajectory.

David - Yes. And look, part of the dirty secret of this flow of overseas students is one of the uses of the revenues that universities get from overseas students is to help cross-subsidise their research activities. So one of the pressure points is what happens to their research. So that's why people are looking at that urgently to see if there are ways in which university research activities and R&D across the country can be supported. And of course there was an  announcement from the chancellor on that last week of some help, particularly for innovative R&D intensive companies. So yeah, there is a danger. But again, the paradox is that this terrible crisis it is bringing home to us how important and how significant the scientific research is. Unlike school science, which is sometimes yes, telling people what we know and what the rules and observations of science are, this is cutting edge science. This is people seeing science played out day by day in the media, dealing with uncertainty, dealing with different accounts of what's happening, comparing them, trying to collect new evidence in real time. I think there's going to be a surge of young people who want to be doing scientific and medical research as a result of this, and we will need them.


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